Participants at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos expect to discuss pressing social and economic issues. They may not expect to be handed wearable gadgets that tell their smartphones if they’re walking far enough or getting enough restful sleep.
But that’s happening at this year’s meeting. We want to convince the world’s corporate, political and civil society leaders that good health – both mental and physical – is one of the most pressing social and economic issues of the day.
Our conception of health care has become too narrow. Too often we see the job of health systems as mending people when they get ill, instead of giving them the tools to stay healthy. We delegate the problem to ministries of health, rather than creatively engaging other public and private organisations to promote health. From regulating particulate emissions to encouraging less sugar and salt to addressing stress in the workplace, the possibilities are endless.
It may seem obvious that a healthier population makes for a happier society and a more productive economy; nonetheless, the insight is often overlooked. We need to spend less energy worrying about funding institutional care for an ageing population, and more asking how to minimise those costs by helping everyone stay healthy and active longer. Children born today should hope not only to live to a long life, but still to be healthy and happy in old age.
If that’s to happen, we need to elevate health to a high-level, cross-sectoral conversation that informs every decision a society makes. How to design our cities? How to transport ourselves? How to produce, label and market our food? How to generate energy without polluting our air? These decisions should be guided by a health perspective, just as much as decisions about how to fund our hospitals.
What are the most effective formal and informal ways of educating our children to make healthy lifestyle choices? What incentive structures for adults make the healthy choices the easy ones? Those are the kind of questions we’ll be exploring in the inaugural Health Summit and 25 other sessions at this year’s Davos.
The time is right to elevate the conversation on health. For the last few years, economic crisis management has understandably absorbed much of Davos delegates’ attention. This year, there is a sense that the global economy is out of intensive care and embarking on rehabilitation. As we ask how metaphorically to improve the economy’s health, literally improving the population’s health must be part of the answer.
Technological developments also make now a propitious time to talk health. There is an explosion of wearable tech which can help to diagnose and inform lifestyle choices, and which – like all technology – should steadily become both more sophisticated and affordable.
Recent years have likewise seen breakthroughs in personalised medicine, which will increasingly enable the repersonalization of healthcare. Often, falling ill feels like losing one’s individuality – being reduced to a patient identification number and a definition in the medical textbooks. As genomic understanding becomes more nuanced, and testing more accessible, we will get more personalised advice on how each of us can best maximise our health.
Importantly, that goes for mental health as well as physical. We are understanding more and more about how the wiring of our brains can go amiss, and how they can be put right. But that knowledge is useless if not acted upon. In low and middle-income countries, it is estimated that more than three-quarters of severe mental health problems go untreated. Even in higher-income countries, untold numbers of people suffer in silence from their mental health issues from fear of being stigmatised if they seek treatment.
One in four of us will suffer from mental health issues at some point in our lives. Beyond the human costs – not only on those struggling with mental disorders, but on their families and friends– there is a significant economic burden. Mental ill-health has become the leading cause of absenteeism in many firms. Its cumulative cost is estimated at $16 trillion over the next 20 years.
We need to find ways to create a culture in which nobody fears moral judgement in mentioning that they’re suffering from depression, any more than in describing how they broke an ankle.
Rehumanizing health is one of the great opportunities of our time. We need to take healthcare decisions out of institutions and empower individuals to optimize their own health. Personalising the issue of health for leaders at Davos is a good way to start.
Author: Robert Greenhill is a member of the Managing Board of the World Economic Forum.
Image: Two joggers run along the embankment of Aare river in Bern, Switzerland. REUTERS/Ruben Spric